We do not as of yet know what damage the wide dissemination of classified government documents WikiLeaks, courtesy of its well-positioned moles, made available to news outlets will do to American security interests or to U.S. relations with other nations. As of this writing, it would appear that this latest document dump will have proved less harmful to troops and to intelligence sources and methods than the one that preceded it last summer. (We don’t yet know what potential damage may be done by the publication of other documents WikiLeaks has yet to hand over.)
Ironically, the embarrassment they currently endure may have done more than anything else to prompt governments to act, and as one, against what is emerging as a new world menace: the phenomenon of an unelected private citizen taking it upon himself to decide what the public needs to know. Give Julian Assange at least this much. By pulling this off, he has achieved more than the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Kim Jong-il combined. If Assange is apprehended, history may record that Roman Polanski, who also stood accused of “rape, sexual molestation, and unlawful coercion,” and also made Interpol’s “most wanted list,” did not serve time because he spared the world knowledge that the King of Saudi Arabia urged the United States to bomb Iran before it became a nuclear power and that Saudi financiers still bankroll al Qaeda. Knowledge such as this, if properly spread, could put an end to human trafficking throughout the world. [Read more about terrorism, national security, and the military.]
The unfolding of the current WikiLeaks saga, which as of this writing appears more as farce than as crisis, with the joke being played on government bloviators, invites a few conclusions. One is that it is premature to declare Assange a “terrorist,” as some members of Congress advocate. His motives, other than wanting to embarrass as many officials and to inject as much chaos into the international world order as he can, are not all that well known. As reprehensible as his “cause trouble for the sake of causing trouble” demeanor may be, he does not appear to advocate violence. Even those among us with the most underdeveloped sense of humor cannot help but chuckle at his passing judgment on Hillary Clinton’s fitness to remain in the office she currently holds. (Talk about giving “chutzpa” a bad name.)
Another is, and don’t quote me, that the media performed more responsibly than is being reported. When presented with crates of materials they knew were already in the hands of key competitors, those that received them appear to have carefully vetted it with an eye toward protecting lives.
Tempting as Assange and the media may be as targets, a promising, but simultaneously more complex and potentially frustrating avenue for prosecutors to pursue in the name of protecting and enhancing the security of the American people would be the accomplices both parties had within government agencies. Already, the government invests considerable time, resources, and effort in deciding to whom to grant top secret and lower security clearances. One wonders why, given this obvious security breach. The current WikiLeaks saga reveals three truisms: 1) that too many people, who do not take seriously their responsibility to safeguard what is entrusted in their care, have made it through the process. (I say “too many” because I find the prospect of one 23-year-old soldier being able to reveal so much incredible.) 2) that those who commit such security breaches do not believe they will be penalized severely. This may have caused a proliferation of would-be Daniel Ellsbergs and in more than one place. (Ellsberg’s failure to serve time for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times on grounds of a technicality—the Nixon administration’s violating other laws in seeking to obtain his conviction—may have taught too many the wrong lesson, that the way to change a policy one disagrees with is to hand over to outsiders classified materials to which one has access.) And 3) that the government classifies too much of its business and squirrels away more than it can possibly keep secret. [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]
One of the much-heralded strengths of the American political system is the capacity of one branch of government to hold the others to account. In his classic work, Congressional Government, Woodrow Wilson argued that legislative oversight was the most important function Congress can perform. He assigned it greater importance than the making of laws.
It is long past time Congress became a full partner in the business of intelligence gathering and national security. The current WikiLeaks fracas may be the perfect occasion for it to enact the remaining recommendations the 9-11 Commission made six years ago. These include strengthening the intelligence committees in each chamber (by placing a greater premium on specialization, expertise, and continuity) and reducing the number of committees involved in what goes by the term “homeland security.” The commission also raised the possibility that agencies and their heads stamp more things “top secret” than is necessary. Perhaps it is time for the body that oversees government agencies to devise a comprehensible and enforceable means of protecting what needs to be protected.
Congress needs to weigh in. When it does, those who take it on will need to do more than pop off on television. They will have to invest countless hours performing tedious tasks and the most unglamorous of work, often behind closed doors. What are the chances of that?
Disclaimer: The author served as director of communications for the 9-11 Commission.